Reply to a Letter
You asked me about Witton, I’ll tell you as much as I know. I’ve had him on my books now for a little over five years though the act itself originated some fifty years ago. Your enquiry is about Witton but I should first point out that your dealings will in fact be with his wife who has now run the business for some considerable time, Witton himself having fallen on ill-health.
Fundamentally the act is that of a dancing bear, a popular vaudeville routine during the past few centuries right up until recent times. The keeper puts the bear through a variety of set routines: barrel balancing, ladder climbing, basic counting and finally a dance, a Hungarian waltz which the keeper plays on a violin. Witton began the act back in the 50s when, after losing his job as a cabinet maker he began spruiking outside the tents at various country fairs. Finding that he had a talent for selling the seemingly unsaleable and having heard of the bear act from some old entertainers on the circuit, he decided to spend his last penny on buying a North American grizzly from the zoo. (The bear in question—a male—had been imported for the express purpose of mating with the zoo’s old resident female, a task it had obstinately refused to perform.) Witton got it cheap, for the zoo it had become not only an embarrassment but a burden; he immediately put it into training and was soon touring the country circuit with great success. He kept the bear muzzled and chained in the back of a converted utility: a steel frame had been welded to it and a wire mesh cage added. He called it Norman, his own first name (he himself was always referred to as Mr Witton), and the act was known from that time on as Norman, The Amazing Dancing Bear.
Witton dressed in a top hat and tails and carried a short willow stick. The bear performed dutifully, placidly even—its lack of interest in the ladies was now being turned to account—offering a growl or a swipe of the paw as if only to keep up appearances. But the main thing was it performed; and to the country folk for whom the mere sight of this strange creature was enough to draw gasps of amazement, the sight of him dancing a Hungarian waltz with a little fez cap on his head was guaranteed to provoke wild applause. They started with the fairs and country shows but could soon even afford to arrive in a town unannounced, park the utility beside the memorial in the main street and within half an hour have a crowd more than willing to fill Witton’s top hat with coins.
Witton met his wife—a publican’s daughter—in the early 1960s, and she took off on the road with him. They added a caravan to the back of the ute and for the next twenty years this was their home. They made a strange little family; camping out at roadside picnic areas, football grounds, vacant lots on the edge of town. At the end of the day the bear would be let out of its cage to share the evening meal with them, the three seated on camp stools around a foldaway table, and sometimes afterwards Mrs Witton and he would dance in the moonlight to the accompaniment of Mr Witton’s violin. Financially they were doing very nicely; Mrs Witton’s careful accounting methods not only kept the show on the road but always ensured that a little extra was put aside for their annual holiday. They headed for the coast, worked the foreshore crowds over Christmas (always their most lucrative season), then stayed on after the holidaymakers had left until March. Whole tracts of sand dunes and beach were theirs; they took long walks, the three hand in hand, and ate the fresh fish that Mr Witton caught from the rocks.
It was in the late 60s that things started to go bad, a change in public opinion that the strange little family, always ignorant of the greater world around them, could never have foreseen. It began as a falling off in the usual crowds, then increasingly vocal rumblings of discontent in the crowds they still managed to muster. Mrs Witton, now undoubtedly the ‘boss’ of the outfit, turned her mind to it, made various changes to the act, spruced up Mr Witton’s costume in line with the new fashions, replaced the violin with an acoustic guitar, Norman’s fez with an orange Carnaby Street cap, his old wooden barrel with a new multi-coloured one. The idea that it was in fact the sight of the bear itself—secured by a chain and forced every day to go through his tired routines—that so upset the formally enthusiastic crowds never even crossed their minds. But the times had changed. It was only Norman, the most affected by this new hostility, who correctly read the signs. He began to pine away. What was formerly an innate placidity now became a heavy, stubborn reluctance. Mr Witton could no longer get him up the ladder and found himself filling out the act with stupid, ribald jokes. His usually playful swipe of a paw or raising of a lip suddenly took on a sinister aspect. Mrs Witton, always a great believer in diet, piled his plate high and encouraged him to eat, but in direct proportion to the increase in his ration, Norman ate less and less. He died peacefully in the night on the twenty-seventh of September, 1971.
The Wittons were devastated. They immediately rang around the various capitals’ zoos in the hope of purchasing a replacement but with the zoos themselves now under fire from all quarters they were not about to release a full-grown grizzly, or any other bear for that matter, into the care of a travelling sideshow. In the midst of their shock the Wittons didn’t even have the presence of mind to bury poor Norman and his body remained covered with a sheet of canvas in the back of the ute while they drove to their favourite holiday spot on the coast in order to collect their thoughts.
Norman’s body had already begun to stink when Mrs Witton came up with her bright idea—most likely it was the stink that gave her the idea in the first place. She told Mr Witton and he reluctantly agreed. They would have Norman gutted and his hide preserved, if they couldn’t have a bear they could at least have a real-life bearskin suit; Mrs Witton would wear it, play the part of Norman and the act would continue as before.
It was in a town in the north-east of the state that the next disaster struck. Mrs Witton’s idea, for all its ingenuity, was still acted on in ignorance of the ever-changing public attitudes. In town after town, to their great consternation, the couple were forced to cut the act short beneath a barrage of abuse with barely a coin in the hat to show for it. It was simply beyond them to understand why. Finally, for Mrs Witton, it all became too much. On a bright sunny Sunday in the town in question the crowd pushed her one step too far. She unzipped the costume, emerged red-faced and sweating, and began berating them for their ignorance. Mr Witton stood dumbstruck, willow stick in hand. He’d been doing the act for so long now that even after the change-over he could still never really think of the animal before him, responding faithfully to his every command, as anything other than Norman, The Amazing Dancing Bear. Suddenly the magic was broken and there was his wife, the bearskin crumpled around her ankles, swearing like he’d never heard her swear before. For a moment there was silence, then an ominous murmur swept through the crowd. To mistreat an animal like this was one thing, to mistreat a woman quite another. They turned on Mr Witton and began beating him mercilessly. Mrs Witton joined the fray, swinging her arms wildly in every direction, but she could do nothing to stop the blows and kicks being rained down upon her helpless husband. Someone eventually called a stop to it—even in the name of politics the violence had gone too far—and the Wittons retreated to the safety of their caravan where Mr Witton was laid out on the bed half-dead. The taunting and abuse continued for a while, the occasional stone landed with a clunk on the roof; they kept the door locked, then crept out of town that night under the cover of darkness.
Mr Witton’s recovery was slow and it kept them off the road for some time. He had punctured a lung, the day after the fracas he blew up like a balloon; Mrs Witton rushed him to the local hospital where he lay prostrate for two weeks, a bloated, grotesque-looking animal, a plastic tube bubbling into the water bottle on the floor beside his bed. They had come, it seemed, to the end of the road. Their savings dwindled; they parked the caravan on a permanent site north of the city and sold the ute, with Norman’s cage still intact, to the greyhound trainer next door. They lived off Mr Witton’s benefits—he was classified permanently disabled, was always in frail health and consistently short of breath—packed the old props away and put the costumes in mothballs. Though she was still unable to comprehend what it was that had caused such an outburst of public loathing as to have permanently incapacitated her husband, it was nevertheless obvious to Mrs Witton that her days as a bear were over. She accepted the fact with a heavy reluctance, the years passed slowly and uneventfully and they both grew old before their time.
The story might have ended there, but Mrs Witton was never one to be beaten. Slowly, as she sat through those long evenings outside the caravan door on the old camp stool, the next phase of the Witton saga began to crystallise in her mind. She resurrected Mr Witton’s violin and began to teach herself the old Hungarian waltz. She let out his suit in the necessary places and rehearsed his old showman’s patter. She rang every venue and agent in town and finally secured a late-night spot at one of the new, alternative cabarets.
They appeared under the spotlight a little before midnight in front of a crowd that was immediately stunned into silence. Mrs Witton, in ill-fitting top hat and tails, a thick layer of face powder and bright pink lipstick, with a full-grown grizzly bear on the end of a chain beside her. They performed the act exactly as Mr Witton and his bear had done all those years before; he walked on the barrel, climbed the ladder, did some basic counting then finally danced his clumsy bear dance to the strains of the whining violin. The audience remained hushed and open-mouthed throughout, but when Mrs Witton and her bear held hands at the end and lowered themselves into a bow, they suddenly burst into thunderous applause.
I took them onto my books shortly after and they have never been out of work since. Though Mr Witton is somewhat enfeebled he is still quite able to perform the act; he takes a small portable oxygen mask inside the suit with him, breathes more or less normally and is yet to put in a bad performance. His movements are slow and a little clumsy but this only adds to the strange realism of it all—he could just as easily be old Norman himself—and the occasional dull spot is more than compensated for by Mrs Witton’s ebullient and at times ribald patter. You say you are putting together a mini-festival of new and unusual theatre. For this I believe the Witton act would be more than suitable and I look forward to hearing from you.
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‘Reply to a Letter’ won 1st Prize in The Age Short Story Competition. It is just one of the many fine stories in Wayne Macauley’s collection Other Stories published recently by Black Pepper.
Image by Alison Murray